Phoebe Bridgers may be the hardest working musician of the past year, especially when it comes to collaborations. After spending last year putting out an EP with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker as boygenius, releasing a Christmas single with Jackson Browne, and otherwise touring with songs from her debut Stranger in the Alps, she now has teamed up with indie superstar Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) as Better Oblivion Community Center. The two teased the band’s debut with a cryptic telephone number ((785) 433-5534) which leads to a distorted recording advertising the community center’s services. This Thursday, January 24th, they performed on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and immediately after released their self-titled album.
The album was feels fairly spur-of-the-moment, with many of the songs coming off rushed and awkward. The single, “Dylan Thomas,” shines above the rest, an up-tempo folk-rock jam, but most of the album is forgettable and dry. Oberst and Bridger’s songwriting chemistry is strong, but their harmonies are weak, and many of the songs could use more production to make them more polished and a smoother album.
The album opens with “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” which contemplates the role of social media in activism, and the narrator’s desire to help, but not having any real motivation to do so. “I didn’t know what I was in for/ When I signed up for that run/ There’s no way I’m curing cancer/ But I’ll sweat it out/ I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done” The sentiment feels genuine, and certainly relatable to many caught in the riptide of the news cycle and protests, but feels like a two-inch-deep reflection on actual issues. In contrast, “Dylan Thomas” has a much fresher narrative built around it, with similar ideas presented, including the exhaustion of the constant barrage of political turns, and how one person can feel isolated against the landslide of national debacles. The two sing:
“These cats are scared and feral
The flag pins on their lapels
The truth is anybody’s guess
These talking heads are saying
‘The king is only playing
A game of four-dimensional chess’”
The song is the height of their skills combined, with the jangly guitars and steady rhythm of each line giving the whole track a classic, clever style, instantly rattling around inside the listener’s head. It could have been written anytime, were it not for the extremely present lyrics.
“Exception to the Rule” breaks any spell that might have cast, introducing an electronic beat like a sore thumb and a cheesy echo effect on the vocals. At times, Oberst’s and Bridger’s harmonizing is entirely out of sync, and is incredibly distracting against the whole album of mostly guitar and drums folk-rock. “Exception to the Rule,” is followed by “Chesapeake,” supposedly the first song written for the project. As a slow ballad, Bridgers and Oberst accompanied by acoustic guitar and a low electronic drone, it lacks heart, the two phoning in their parts against what would typically be right in their element. “Dominos,” the closer of the album, is almost unbearably corny, inserting line-by-line sound effects as illustration, in what would otherwise be a perfectly suitable big finale number, but instead cheapens its own effect with hacky production tricks.
Despite the initial promise of the song, “Dylan Thomas,” Better Oblivion Community Center’s album fails to maintain the energy behind that song. The duo of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst are talented songwriters together, but lack chemistry when it comes to harmonizing, and the entirety of the album feels rushed and disjointed. Were this to be done in a style similar to Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett’s Lotta Sea Lice, the two alternating the lead on songs and writing songs for the other, it might have been a superb album. But, the double singers on each song feels forced, and there’s not enough depth behind the album to stand up against scrutiny. Hopefully, Better Oblivion Community Center is up for renovations, but for now it remains as an almost entirely forgettable roadside attraction.